Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

The New Orleans Theatre 1792-1803

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

The New Orleans Theatre 1792-1803

Article excerpt

The performance of Grétry's Silvain on May 22, 1796 is of particular interest to New Orleans opera lovers and students, as this is the first date at which the performance of an opera in the city can be precisely placed. This was nevertheless not the first performance of Silvain: as Pontalba reports in his letter of May 22, the opera was a favorite of Célestin, who knew it well enough to sing some of the words, and he must therefore have heard it in the previous season. Indeed, it seems quite evident from Pontalba's 1796 letters that his wife, and Célestin also, had already seen most of the plays which were performed in 1796, as well as the actors whom Pontalba names, with the exception of the new 35-year-old actress just engaged. He writes to his wife about Fontaine, Mme. Marsan, Mme. Durosier, Henry and Champigny as though she knew perfectly well who they were. She had of course already known Henry and Mme. Durosier for several years; as also Champigny, who was the family's hairdresser, as Pontalba indicates in his letter of November 6. But Pontalba obviously feels that Fontaine and Mme. Marsan likewise need no special introduction; and while the explanation for this could be that Mme. Pontalba had merely heard about their coming to New Orleans, the inference from the letters is very strong that she had seen these actors before she left. This must have been, almost surely, before September 8, 1795, when she first received news of Miró 's death in Spain, as it is not likely that she would have attended the theatre for a considerable time thereafter. Fontaine, as will appear later, was in New York near the beginning of 1795; and it is possible that Mme. Marsan was there at the same time. It seems therefore likely that these and other members of the old Cap-Français troupe had been engaged to appear in New Orleans at the beginning of the 1795-96 season, in conformity with the plans for reorganization that had been adopted.

Henry (Louis-Alexandre) and Mme. Durosier have already been discussed. Obviously, Pontalba had no high opinion of their ability as actors. He also refers to Mme. Durosier as la petite Bohémienne - that is to say, probably, a person of somewhat unconventional habits. The 1796-97 season was her last in New Orleans, and no trace of her has been found elsewhere.

Champigny (Louis), a native of Richelieu (Indre-et-Loire) in France, had been a resident of New Orleans for some years, and was married there in 1786.1 He joined the cast in July, 1796 as an "amateur."2 Pontalba wrote in his letter of November 6 that Champigny wished to go with him when he left New Orleans, to serve as personal attendant to Mme. Miró and Mme. Pontalba. It is possible that he carried out this plan, as he was not a member of the 1797-98 cast, and he does not reappear in the New Orleans theatre until October 29, 1806, when he was again announced as an "amateur," having also resumed his old profession of hairdresser.3

The two other actors mentioned by Pontalba - Fontaine and Mme. Marsan - were among the most important members of the Cap-Français troupe.

In view of Fontaine's prominence in New Orleans history, not only as an actor, but because of his other activities - he is chiefly known today as editor of the Moniteur de la Louisiane - his biography is given here at some length.4 Jean-Baptiste Le Sueur Fontaine, son of Claude Le Sueur and Marie-Thérèse Colin, was born about 1745 in the parish of Saint-Jacques-la-Boucherie in Paris. In 1775 or earlier he settled in Saint-Domingue and became an actor at the theatre in Cap-Français; and in 1780, he was named director to succeed Desforges. In addition to his work in the theatre, he took part in several other activities to supplement his income. He engaged in retail merchandising in a minor way, he operated a bakery, and he accumulated sufficient funds to purchase a rum distillery in the parish of Limonade, three leagues east of CapFrançais, which would later be valued in the indemnity settlement at 193,508 francs;5 also a house in Cap-Français, value unknown, which was destroyed by fire following the arrival of General Leclerc in early 1802. …

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